Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Death of Innocence

Dealey Plaza
Dallas, Texas

Only those over the age of fifty will qualify for this post.  The question of the day is, "Where were you when Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas?"  Today is the 46th anniversary of that event, but its effects live on.

I was attending East High School.  It was my friend Doug's birthday.  The school was still reeling from its mourning of the deaths of two classmates, having just buried two seniors who were killed by a drunk driver earlier that month.  Lin Hewlett and Flemming Christensen's lives were senselessly ended only a month before on October 21st.  They were hardly in their graves before the tragic news of President Kennedy stunned the world, another promising life snuffed out inexplicably. 

For students at East High in 1963, it was another staggering body blow.

On November 22, 1963, a small group of us were huddled in the cafeteria of the school, passing around homemade cupcakes with candles, and the news reached our table.  Despite our celebratory mood, there was instantaneous soberness, shock and disbelief.  Someone had shot and killed the President of the United States?  Unthinkable!  Not in 1963!  Those kinds of acts were reserved for some dark chapter in history, like back in the day when Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.  But not now!

If no one knew Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather before that day, they certainly knew them thereafter.  I will never forget watching and re-watching Cronkite's report on black-and-white CBS TV News, choked with emotion as he removed his black horn-rimmed glasses and wiped away his tears as he made the somber pronouncement, "The President is dead."  It was unthinkable.  It was the era of the Beatles and Beach Boys when the decade began, but the Sixties would descend into a living hell of war protesting, racial upheaval and widespread psychadelic drug abuse.

The world mourned his passing for days, even years afterward.  Some spoke of it as the "end of Camelot."  There is never a year that passes but what articles are written (here's one that appeared today), specials are put together for TV, and we collectively recall that fateful day.  We never got to hear Lee Harvey Oswald testify in open court because he was himself assassinated by Jack Ruby, a nickel-and-dime hoodlum with Mafia ties who owned a nightclub in Dallas.  Ruby stood trial, was convicted, and died of lung cancer in prision while awaiting appeal.

No one who was alive in 1963 can seem to forget where they were and what they were doing on that infamous day.  We all recall it in complete detail.  It's as if time stood still.  Why?  I believe it is because for many of us it represented what I titled "the death of innocence." 

Evil was suddenly possible.  There were no barriers left.  Civility was dealt a severe blow.  Progress being made toward hope for a better tomorrow was suddenly and instantly suspended for a season.  We collectively pondered the question, "If a man can shoot and kill a President, is anything out of bounds?"

Of course, since then conspiracy theories have abounded.  Did Oswald act alone?  Was there a second or third shooter from the grassy knoll or a manhole cover?  Did the Warren Commission's finding that the single bullet theory that simultaneously maimed Kennedy and severely wounded Texas Governor John Connally in the front seat really have merit?  The debates wore on and on for years, and still persist.

Was it Cuba-backed sympathizers who killed him?  Was it a Mafia-inspired plot because of the Kennedy's pursuit of Costa Nostra crime families?  Was it Communist-inspired retaliation for the Kennedy blockade of Cuba when the U.S.S.R.'s long-range missles were discovered on Cuban soil?  There was no end to the speculation in those days.

While on business in Dallas a few years ago, I walked from my hotel down to Dealey Plaza and took my self-guided tour of the Sixth Floor Book Depository Museum.  It was a sobering reality to stand on the very spot where the unforgettable events of my youth had transpired.  I've never forgotten the feelings. 

I sifted through all the various theories about his assassination as I walked from room to room.  Then I stood at the window where Oswald fired three bullets (the casings were found in the nest after he fled), apparently one of which was the fatal shot if the Warren Commission is to be believed. 

They called it "the shooter's nest."  It was chilling to consider what thoughts must have been running through Oswald's mind that morning as I stood where he had crouched at an open window overlooking Dealey Plaza when the motorcade passed below.  Kennedy, standing and waving to an adoring crowd in an open Lincoln convertible was certainly an inviting target. 

But as I stood there that morning, as a former expert marksman myself (with a semi-automatic M-16, mind you), I considered that it would have had to be one heck of a shot, especially with having to cock, load and re-acquire my target three times within a matter of seconds at a target that was speeding in the opposite direction after the first shot rang out.  It was a bolt-action rifle with a scope that Oswald used, and a kill shot certainly could have been possible in the hands of someone skilled in its use, but I just thought over and over again as I stood there, "That was one heck of a shot (or two or three) from here." 

Like many Americans I read many, many books about the assassination in the years that followed, trying to understand and make sense of an irrational act of violence.  I even read the whole Warren Commission report.  Senator Arlen Specter (now D-PA, formerly R-PA) was the author of the single-bullet theory while he served on the Warren Commission. 

And I always thought to myself back then, "You'd have to believe pigs can fly to believe that theory."  But what do I know?  After all these years no one has ever offered a credible counter-theory that has seemingly stood up as well as Specter's, though it has certainly been attacked as uncredible by experts.  And that single bullet, the one they found on Kennedy's stretcher in the aftermath at Parkland Memorial Hospital, is not the one that accounted for the fatal head shot.  

I've forgotten most of what I read now.  I would have to say for myself that's it's still an open question as to the who, the why, the how about Kennedy's death. 

As a family, we still wonder about the premature passing of Lin and Flemming too.  In subsequent years there have been many other family members whose mortal lives have likewise ended too soon by our reckoning, and we search in vain for answers here and now.

But I do know this for sure -- for me and many others in my baby-boomer generation this day in history represents the loss of innocence.  After that, anything was possible.

When Lin and Fleming were laid to rest, President S. Dilworth Young of the First Council of the Seventy penned these lines while sitting on the stand at Flemming's funeral in the Douglas Ward:

I sit and ask myself:
These boys, these
Their hopes and
Once bright,
Now moving in

We do not
That Light;
We know 'tis
There, but
How, or
Where, we
Cannot know
Until that
Blessed day
We, the veil
Worn thin
Will see
Waiting patiently

Then what
Will be our
No pain!  No
But more!
We shall then
The reason

What matter how
Go.  If in Thy sight
They stand before
Stand there

If you're over fifty years old, your comments and memories are welcome here. . . 

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